November 08, 2012

(+++) THE REST OF THE STORY


The Giver Quartet II: Gathering Blue. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

The Giver Quartet III: Messenger. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

The Giver Quartet IV: Son. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

      Lois Lowry’s The Giver stands on its own, and it stands tall – as a sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful story about a dystopian society and the price that its members pay for what appears to be safety and security. But The Giver, although it can be read by itself and provide a highly satisfying experience (of which the ambiguous ending is an integral part), is actually only the start of a multi-book series – originally planned by Lowry as a trilogy and now expanded into a quartet.  The four books, now available in high-quality, matched Houghton Mifflin editions, enlarge the story of the first one and in some ways enrich it, although the second through fourth books are not compelling enough to be must-reads in the way that The Giver itself is.

      Gathering Blue, originally published in 2000 – seven years after The Giver – focuses on a lame girl named Kira whose life is spared by her harsh society, where those who cannot work die, because the Council of Guardians discovers that she is good at embroidery. Kira is assigned to fix the robe worn by the village’s Singer, whose job is to sing the story of human civilization once a year. Other characters here are Thomas, who carves the Singer’s staff; an old woman named Annabella, who teaches Kira how to dye in every color except blue, which the village does not possess; and Matt, who tells Kira he once came upon another village that did have blue. The threads of the story are similar to those of The Giver – this book is designated a “companion” to the earlier one – as Kira, like Jonas in the prior book, learns the harsh truths that lie behind the village’s generally placid exterior. Eventually, Matt goes missing, then returns with a blind man who wears a blue shirt and turns out to be Kira’s long-lost father – who, it turns out, lives in a community whose members are injured or disabled. The plot is more obvious than that of The Giver and is thinner; the book is an extension of the world of the earlier novel but does not add a great deal to it. However, Matt becomes important as the protagonist of the third book in the series, Messenger.

      Actually, several characters from earlier in the series reappear in Messenger, which was first published in 2004 and was supposed to conclude the story begun in The Giver. In addition to Matt, Kira is in the third book, and so is Jonas, now called Leader, who is in charge of the village where Messenger is focused. Even Gabe, whom Jonas took with him in The Giver, reappears in Messenger. But the book goes off in a different direction from the earlier ones and does not provide a very satisfactory ending to the various stories – in fact, the conclusion seems rather abrupt and forced. The village here is the one where the injured and outcasts live; Matt, now called Matty, lives there with the blind man, Seer. Matty is the village’s messenger, able to go through the surrounding, mysterious forest, which lacks dangerous animals but is itself dangerous in an eerie way, injuring people it does not want passing through – and killing them if they come in again. Matty is unaffected and can therefore take messages to and from other villages. Something is wrong with his village, though, just as something has been wrong with the settings of the first two books. In this case, the peaceful and accommodative villagers are becoming angry, deciding to wall themselves off from the rest of the world and no longer accept injured or displaced people. This leads Seer to ask Matty to go fetch his daughter – yes, it is Kira, of Gathering Blue – before the village is walled off. Matty and Kira are attacked by the forest, Leader (Jonas) goes to get them and is also captured, but eventually Matty is able to use a power he barely understands to heal the forest itself as well as the people of the village – at the cost of his own life.  Jonas then designates Matty “Healer” rather than “Messenger.” But the conclusion of the book seems perfunctory, even though Matty is remembered as his village’s great hero in the concluding book.

      The newly released Son is a much better summation than Messenger of the various tales, although not a perfect one. It is considerably longer than the prior two books – nearly as long as Gathering Blue and Messenger put together – and has a larger canvas, in effect a triptych. It starts when a child, called a “product,” is born to a 14-year-old girl named Claire, who is left sterile after the birth (during which she is blindfolded) and who finds herself with a maternal interest in her child that is not usual in her community. The reasons Claire is different hark back to The Giver, and it turns out that Gabe is her child, so the connections among books are apparent early in Son. Claire searches for Gabe, arrives in a more-tolerant community than the one she left, then moves on from there into adventures that involve not only Gabe but also Jonas and other characters from the earlier books. The last part of Son is set in the village where Messenger takes place, pulling many threads of the books together.  Actually, Lowry ties things together almost too neatly, making sure that the fourth book touches directly on all three previous ones. The first third is set in Jonas’ original village; the middle in an isolated seaside village, not seen before, that is protected and hemmed in by cliffs; and the final portion in the Messenger village. The first part of Son essentially provides a different perspective on the village of The Giver. It is the middle of the book that has the most-original storytelling and is in many ways the most interesting part, although the climax of the entire book is a fast-paced high-stakes battle that is, if anything, over too quickly to be fully engaging. The real problem here is that the book ends with a rousing fantasy-style good-vs.-evil confrontation, while the earlier books were more closely rooted in science: the people of Lowry’s world had practiced eugenics and had had the ability to control the weather. The world at the end of Son (not so much in the first two parts) seems fundamentally different, and although Lowry’s fine writing style almost makes the last part of the story believable, it is not quite enough: the ending veers perilously close to cliché, which is not at all true of The Giver, and even some of the characterizations (notably that of Gabe) fall short of what Lowry did earlier in the series.

      This is a very unusual quartet. Its first book is vastly superior to any of the others, which is why it is not discussed here as part of the sequence. There is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, in reading The Giver by itself and stopping right there, enmeshed in its world and troubled by its ambiguities (several of which are rather disappointingly “solved” in later books). Readers hungering for more of the world that Lowry created in The Giver have nowhere to turn but to the three followup books – but they do not quite feel as if they occupy the same world, and they do not fit into it quite as well or as elegantly as does The Giver itself. Those wanting to read the entire sequence will surely find Son, despite its flaws, to be a far better conclusion than Messenger. The choice is really between reading only The Giver or reading all four books – stopping with either Gathering Blue or Messenger is a recipe for disappointment. Therefore, it is a good thing that Lowry wrote Son, which makes the tetralogy much more satisfying than the trilogy was. But it is not more satisfying than The Giver as a standalone novel.

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